Just the day before our 73rd Independence Day on 14th August 2020, a report by Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz was published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) “exposing” the links of Facebook with the ruling party in India (Union), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The report stated that the Facebook’s regional chief (Director) of public policy to have turned a blind-eye to posts by politicians from the ruling party in India, resulting in hate-speech continuing to exist on its platform despite violating their own community guidelines, with no or very minute action taken against their propagators.
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Facebook has its biggest user base in India with its string of social media applications.
The WSJ Report
The report starts with the mention of BJP MLA from Telangana, the notorious T. Raja Singh. The report bears the testimony of present and former employees of Facebook who’ve said that Facebook has violated their own community guidelines and have let content, which comprises of “hate-speech” and violent rhetoric, continued to exist on its platform.
The report has made firm statements about Ms. Ankhi Das, who is at the epicenter of this controversy. Ms. Das, who joined Facebook in 2011 as its public-policy head for India, South and Central Asia, oversees a team that “decides what content is allowed on the platform”, as said by an employee.
Her job profile includes lobbying to India’s government on Facebook’s behalf, has as the report states as said by employees, both former and present, “told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi’s party would damage the company’s business prospects in the country”.
Singh has broken such guidelines on several occasions be it threatening to create a “Dadri-like situation” after students of Osmania University in Hyderabad made plans to organize a beef festival on campus (December 2015) when he called for the “beheading of those who oppose the Ram temple”, leading to tension in the state (2017).
In January this year, Singh reiterated his threat to kill the “Owaisi brothers” — AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi and his brother Akbaruddin Owaisi — and bring an end to all those who oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Facebook is said, under the guidance of Ms. Das, that Singh has been allowed to persist on the social media platform with some of his posts removed after the WSJ approached Facebook.
The report further states “That team took no action after BJP politicians posted content accusing Muslims of intentionally spreading the coronavirus, plotting against the nation and waging a ‘love jihad’ campaign by seeking to marry Hindu women, that former employee said. Ms. Das has provided the BJP with favorable treatment on election-related issues, current, and former employees said”.
It goes on “In April of last year, days before voting began in India’s general election, Facebook announced it had taken down inauthentic pages tied to Pakistan’s military and the Congress Party, the BJP’s main rival party. But it didn’t disclose it also removed pages with false news tied to the BJP, because Ms. Das intervened, according to former Facebook employees
The report also mentions that Ms. Das’ essay found its mention on the website as well as the mobile application of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who heads the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre. There’s also a tempting attempt to establish the personal conviction of Das with the saffron outfits as she’s found to share posts with anti-Muslim rhetoric on her social accounts.
Further, there’s mention of Kapil Mishra, whose video is considered to have incited the deadly Delhi Riots earlier this year and Anantkumar Hegde, who has posted essays and cartoons to his Facebook page alleging that Muslims are spreading Covid-19 in the country in a conspiracy to wage “Corona Jihad.”
Facebook’s Quid-Pro-Quo & Past Miscreants
It is not the first time such a controversy had taken place. Just about two months ago, when the Black Lives Matter #BLM movement started with the death of George Floyd, Facebook has been stated to have supported and ignored its own community guidelines and have let hate-speech and violence triggering tinged content left to subsist on its platform.
The WSJ, New York Times, and Washington Post were swift to report after finding out valid sources and drafting such reports and have linked Facebook’s electoral contribution in the U.S to such politicians.
During the protests, when Trump threatened to issue the Insurrection Act (1857) after protesters marched to the White House the previous evening and burned the church nearby, popularly known as “church of the Presidents”, Facebook and Instagram were found out to help the Federal authorities to trace and track data of the protesters from their devices and steal their personal data and hack their way into their lives.
It was only after the advertisement pushover and boycott over its (favorable) treatment for Trump that Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook would start labeling contents and it deterred from doing so, so as to let people know “what’s in the case“.
The report also states such behavior of Facebook “Facebook sometimes adapts its policies to meet political realities in key markets. Facebook agreed to abide by stricter hate-speech rules in Germany, than in the U.S. or elsewhere.
In Singapore, where its Asia operations are based, it has agreed to append a “correction notice” to news stories deemed false by the government. And in Vietnam, it agreed to restrict access to dissident political content deemed illegal in exchange for the government ending its practice of disrupting Facebook’s local servers, which had slowed the platform to a crawl”
Das’ alleged decision in Singh’s case bears a striking similarity to global reports from earlier this month, where Facebook’s vice-president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan is reported to have intervened to “remove strikes” against conservative pages in the United States.
Just as the report reached India, the whole activism world bloated like a cannon.
Soon after the report in The Wall Street Journal, Saket Gokhale, a Right to Information (RTI) activist, tweeted about Ankhi Das’s links to BJP-affiliated groups.
Gokhale claimed on Saturday that Ankhi Das “attends sessions” of the World Organization of Students & Youth (WOSY), a youth group that is led by her sister, Rashmi Das.
Gokhale claimed WOSY’s office was located in the same building as an RSS outfit in Delhi.
Rashmi Das was also an office-bearer of the ABVP (BJP’s student-wing) at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
With leaders from the opposition demanding a fair probe with the Parliamentary Committee of Information Technology, headed by Dr. Shashi Tharoor, even Saket Gokhale tweeted that the Modi government will soon derail the whole issue and so it’s better to appeal the head of the committee.
Opposition parties like Congress have also written to the government and Facebook for a probe and to clear their stand, respectively.
A huge number of people have expressed their concern within and beyond borders and tweeted and mentioned the government and party leaders demanding a free and fair probe, with the AAP party’s Raghav Chadha led Delhi Assembly panel stating that they’d soon call upon Facebook officials for inquiry.
Meanwhile, Ms. Das has filed a complaint with the Delhi Police stating “threat on her life” due to the WSJ article and has named 5 other individuals in the FIR. “I am extremely disturbed by the relentless harassment meted out to me,” Das had said in her police complaint.
According to a report on News laundry, Das named Himanshu Deshmukh, Awash Tiwari, Anamika Singh, Travis Bikal, and the Twitter user @justanalysis as the accused. In the criminal complaint, only Awesh Tiwari is a journalist.
The Chandigarh Press Bureau, a journalist body has requested the withdrawal of the criminal complaint by Das.
Facebook did also respond, just in a different way. They fired the employee who provided WSJ for his testimony. This is also something the social media giant has done in the past.
On 12th June 2020, Facebook had fired employees who protested against inaction upon Trump’s provocative post during the Black Lives Matter protests.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that a handful of employees have written a letter asking Facebook to denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” posts from BJP politicians that Ankhi Das protected and shared herself on the platform.
In a comment posted internally to employees, Ajit Mohan, the head of Facebook in India, said the company was confident that the WSJ article’s claim about political affiliations influencing decision making in India is “inaccurate and without merit,” Reuters reported.
Facebook has yet to offer any evidence to dispute the claims made in the WSJ report — and has not disputed them at all in its statements to news outlets. In its public statements, Facebook has said it is making “progress on enforcement and conduct regular audits.”
The parliamentary panel on Information Technology has summoned Facebook officials and officials from the Ministry of Information Technology on September 2, 2020, for an inquiry into the claims.
To this Nishikant Dubey, a Member of Parliament of the BJP from Jharkhand has requested the Lok Sabha speaker, to remove Shashi Tharoor as the panel chairperson.
Without rules, we live among animals. There are community guidelines for the safety of users in the social platform, which can be taken for the rules, and from time and again, in lines with such guidelines, content on social media is scrutinized, censored and removed (if found violating the rules).
This is the responsibility of the platform to care for its users, and that’s why the “report” option exits if the content is perceived to be harmful or malicious. For such a huge presence, to deter community guidelines is very important for every single user to feel safe in their space.
This is a live example where a corporate is lobbying in a give-&-take manner, negotiates with the government so as to enhance its business. They don’t care for the people.
If we’re to blame the political outfits, we must also know that the political outfits could’ve done nothing if they were not provided the medium on a silver platter. This is corporate greed.
We must be aware and conscious that such corporations do more harm than good and choose the applications or websites wisely to propagate our thoughts and ideas in free will and rely on their servers with our data, and they’d point out and correct if any of our thoughts are in violation of others’ or a community’s.
– Aanandita Singh